Nostalgia: Sunderland’s links to Titanic disaster

Titanic in Southampton
Titanic in Southampton
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CHARLIE Whilems – a Wearside glassblower by trade – was enjoying a game of cards in the Second Class smoking lounge just before midnight on April 14, 1912, when he felt Titanic suddenly shudder.

Throwing down his hand, the 31-year-old dashed up to the deck with his fellow players – where they spotted an iceberg, “huge and white against the dark blue sea,” as it went “whizzing past” the ship.

Little did he, or the other 2,223 people aboard, realise the unthinkable had just happened. The unsinkable Titanic was destined to sink on her maiden voyage – a block of ice in the North Atlantic causing her downfall.

Indeed, after shrugging off the incident, Charlie – who had paid £13 for a Second Class ticket to visit his ailing father in New York – quickly returned to his card game, until raised voices on the decks above disturbed him.

“Officers were telling everyone that there was no danger, and no reason to worry in the least. Half an hour later, however, the order came to put on lifebelts,” he later revealed.

“I went down to my stateroom and fetched my lifebelt, waking two of my roommates and telling them to put on lifebelts, as the ship had struck a berg.

“I do not know their names, but I remember they laughed at me in their bunks when I told them to put on the lifebelts. Both of them went down with the ship.”

Water was already pouring into the punctured hull of Titanic as Charlie, who had moved from Sunderland to London to work as a glass factory foreman, returned to the deck.

The unsung hero was to spend the next two hours helping women and children into the lifeboats, before eventually being told to board the last one - Lifeboat 9.

“All the men were very calm, but some of the women, refusing to be separated from their husbands and sons, had literally to be thrown into the boats,” he recalled.

“The first boat had scarcely any passengers. I think there were only eight. I think I was in the last boat. There were about 55 others with me, of whom all but about eight were women.”

Despite the cramped conditions of Lifeboat 9, Charlie was, statistically, an extremely lucky man. Of the 167 Second Class male passengers aboard, he was one of only 13 to survive.

Just 40 minutes later, Titanic - the ship hailed as “the safest liner ever built” - slid beneath the waves. It was a sight Charlie would never forget.

“We rowed about 400 yards from the ship before we saw her settling slowly by the head. Then there was an explosion,” he said afterwards.

“The lights went out and the ship seemed to break, her nose plunging down and her stern bucking almost straight up.

“I put my hands over my ears to shut out the wailing as the lights went out, and those on board began to realize that something dreadful was going to happen.

“The screams grew fainter and fainter very soon, however. Later in the morning, we saw many of the bodies floating by.”

Rescue for Charlie and his comrades came several hours after the sinking - in the shape of Tyne-built Cunard liner Carpathia, which plucked 705 survivors from the icy waters.

“All well. Saved” – read the telegram sent by Charlie from Carpathia to his frail father Joseph, who was staying with a relative in New York after suffering a “stroke of paralysis.”

It is not known how Charlie’s visit to America went, once he finally reached New York, but it is known that he survived a return trip to England. He died in 1940, in Ilford, Essex.

Charlie’s great-niece Olive Stephenson, of Middleham Court in Witherwack, said: “I am very proud of what Charles did. It is amazing the stories you can find in your family tree.”

Sidebar: On the scene

WEARSIDE marine engineer Albert McFarlane never forgot the sinking of Titanic – and his experience of the disaster is a family story which has been passed down the generations.

“My grandfather was fourth engineer on the Sunderland-built tramp ship SS Detmold at the time the Titanic sank, on a voyage to the USA,” said Sunderland councillor Bob Francis.

“His navigation officers later calculated they had been close to the suspected site of the Titanic although, as we now know, there was some doubt about the exact position of the liner.”

Albert, the son of a shipyard worker, was born in Sunderland in 1890 and lived in Trinity Street, Southwick, as a young child before moving to to Middlesbrough for a few years.

He went on to be apprenticed as a fitter, turner and millwright at George Clark’s Engineering and, after finishing his training at 21, signed up as an engineer on the SS Detmold in November 1911.

“Imagine what excitement it must have been for a 21-year-old to sail across the Mediterranean, though the Suez Canal, down the Red Sea and across the Indian Ocean to Calcutta,” said Bob.

Albert signed on for a second spell with the Detmold in March 1912, with his destination this time being America – putting him within the general area in which Titanic sank.

“Conversations with my grandfather revealed that, on the night of the sinking, Detmold’s seawater intakes were closed, the sea was unusually calm and there was no moon,” said Bob, from Fulwell.

“The seawater converters were shut right down, as it was so cold, and the old chief engineer told the crew that he had never known anything like it.”

The first that the Detmold sailors knew of the sinking of the Titanic, however, was when a pilot jumped aboard the ship as it approached the Chesapeake estuary in Philadelphia.

“He said ‘The Titanic has gone down,’” said Bob. “I always remember my grandfather imitating his accent. No-one believed it though, they thought it must be another ship. But, of course, it was true.

“Later, when the navigating officers looked at the details, they realised their ship had been in the same sea area. But radios weren’t compulsory at the time, so they didn’t know until too late.

“Ships were just floating islands with no form of communication back then – except semaphore if they passed close enough to anyone else. Even if they had a radio, it didn’t have to be turned on.”

Albert remained at sea until 1926, only giving up his career when his youngest daughter, Bob’s mother, failed to recognise him when he returned to Sunderland after a lengthy voyage.

He never, however, forgot the sinking of Titanic and Bob said:

“It was one of those things that stuck out in his life. He was a seaman, and they all had this closeness. He regretted the loss of life, as it was the feeling of ‘It could have happened to us.’”

Sidebar: Surviving the Titanic

PURE tenacity – and a little stroke of luck – helped Wearside man James Allen escape unharmed from the Titanic as it sank on April 15, 1912.

Southampton-born James had been living in Sunderland for five years before the doomed voyage, after marrying a local girl.

But, after hearing that dozens of workers were needed to staff the new ship, he gave up his job as a checker at the newly opened Empire Theatre to sign on as a greaser.

As news of the sinking of the Titanic flashed around the world, his wife back in Sunderland was told she was now a widow. James, however, had managed to survive – despite fears to the contrary.

“He later described how he had survived the ordeal,” said local historian Alan Brett, who revealed details of James’ miraculous escape in his 2007 book, Canny Old Sunderland.

“He made his way up from the engine room and put on a jersey with the name Titanic on it. He then slid down a rope into a lifeboat.”

Although there were not enough lifeboats to carry all the passengers, James was allowed to stay onboard without any questions.

“He helped row the boat clear of the stricken ship and was picked up six hours later by the Carpathia,” added Alan.

After being taken to New York, James returned safely to his Southwick home just a few weeks later, after securing passage on board the ship Finland.

“As the extent of the tragedy unfolded, fund-raising for dependants of the lost staff and passengers was soon underway across Sunderland,” said Alan.

“One such charity event was held at the Whitehall Rink in Holmeside, on May 3, 1912 – less than three weeks after the disaster.”

Other Wearside links to the Titanic included the fact that the ship’s electric winches were supplied by Sunderland Forge and Engineering Company.

And Sunderland footballer Charlie Buchan had good reason to breathe a sigh of relief when he heard the tragic news – as he almost booked a passage on the ship.

Instead, he opted to sail off for a holiday in Canada on the the ship which followed the ill-fated liner, returning in time to help Sunderland win the 1912/13 First Division title.

Sidebar: Titanic facts

** Titanic was 883ft long, 92ft wide and weighed 46,328 tonnes.

** The ship was 104ft tall from keel to bridge – almost 35ft being below the waterline.

** Titanic was designed as a marvel of the modern age, with a double-hull of one-inch steel plates.

** 16 watertight compartments sealed by massive doors were supposed to make Titanic unsinkable.

** The ship boasted a luxury swimming pool, squash court, Turkish bath and gym.

** 32 lifeboats were originally planned, but this was reduced to 20 – to keep the deck free of clutter.

** The maiden voyage began at Southampton on Wednesday, April 10, 1912, at noon.

** Titanic received five ice warnings on April 14. A sixth was sent, but never reached the captain.

** At 11.40pm on April 14 a lookout spotted an iceberg. Attempts to steer the ship to safety failed.

** Titanic sank to the bottom of the Atlantic at about 3.21am on April 15, 1912.

** More than 1,500 people lost their lives in the disaster.